Historian Jerah Johnson, one of the University of New Orleans’ founding faculty members, died Feb. 12 at the age of 85. He had been retired from UNO since 2003.
Professor Johnson was born in south Georgia in 1931. His parents relocated the family to Venezuela and then to France during the late 1930s. He spent much of World War II in London and returned to Georgia to finish high school at the age of 16.
Johnson earned his undergraduate degree at Emory University in Atlanta, Ga. and his doctorate at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. He majored in history at UNC with minors in both linguistics and comparative literature. In 1956-58 he spent time in France on a Fulbright Fellowship at the University of Paris. He later confessed that most of his time there was spent in cafés drinking coffee and cognac. He joined the faculty of what was then Louisiana State University at New Orleans (LSUNO) in 1959, a year after the University opened, and helped form the character and culture of the history department. His field was Renaissance Europe, but he taught Louisiana history, world history and the introductory graduate course in research and writing.
Taking a job at a new branch of LSU might have seemed an odd choice for some at the time. Johnson recalled telling his grandmother, "I’m going to risk it," when he accepted a UNO position. In fact, the decision came easily. Teaching posts were scarce in 1959, and his other offers were from Northwestern State in Natchitoches and a small Maryland college. New Orleans seemed a far more enticing place to live, and Johnson embraced the city and its history. He wrote pioneering articles on African-American culture in Congo Square and the French influence in early New Orleans. A UNO Driftwood article at the time of his 2003 retirement quoted Johnson’s opinion of his adopted city. “Why on earth live anywhere else, unless it is smack dab in the middle of lower Manhattan or the Left Bank of Paris, and both would require far too much money.”
Johnson served as department chair from 1968 to 1980. “A department meeting where Jerah held forth was an event to be looked forward to,” said Gerry Bodet, a professor and longtime colleague of Johnson’s. “True, the mundane matters of policy were on the agenda, but inevitably these would morph into questions of philosophical truth, or the lack thereof, with a wry humor peppering the discussion.”
Johnson contributed to numerous university committees, advised students, and helped to build a vibrant history program. He was especially proud of his efforts to diversify the history faculty. During his tenure as chair, he promoted the international mission of the University by approving the study abroad program in Munich—the forerunner of the immensely successful UNO-Innsbruck International Summer School.
Even after retirement, Johnson’s home in the Marigny was open to UNO students seeking research advice on some aspect of New Orleans history. His interests always remained wide, however. Because of his extraordinary erudition, and his aesthetic appreciation of the arts, architecture and design, colleagues fittingly referred to him as the department’s “Renaissance Man.”